The other day, I was working with a college pitcher. When I approached this young man, you could tell by his body language he was frustrated. He had thrown a bullpen yesterday. His feedback from the bullpen had been underwhelming. The three things he had been working on primarily in his training sessions were not transferring over. I explained the adjustments he was making take time to transfer – especially considering this was only week two.
While he understood this, he was more frustrated he couldn’t feel the difference between a good rep and a bed rep. To him, everything felt the same. When I heard this, I understood his frustration. It’s one thing to experience the problem of transfer. It’s another to experience a problem of feedback. If he couldn’t feel the difference between doing it well and not well, we were never going to get it to show up on the mound.
At the time, he was doing a drill variation we call a “drop in” throw. He’ll start on a yoga box, hop off the box, stick the landing on his back leg, and then throw. This drill is a great option for athletes that are having a tough time finding their hip hinge. Landing and catching your bodyweight on one leg forces you to find a hip hinge – where all the muscles around the hip co-contract to stabilize the joint. We’ll do this drill from a variety of directions and experiment to figure out which direction works best for that athlete.
In this variation, he was jumping to his glove side (think the direction of a glove side fastball). Rep by rep, you could sense his frustration. He couldn’t quite stick the landing. His back leg had been a problem in the past – experiencing injury set backs in his ankle, hip, and knee. He knew the area was weak, which made him even more determined to get this drill right. After offering a few coaching tips, the drill still wasn’t working. His landing was all over the place. He couldn’t feel the hip hinge. Sensing a boiling point in his frustration, I knew we needed to pivot. I couldn’t just tell him what it looked like. I had to get him to “feel” the difference.
When we’re training to optimize movement, we have to learn how to leverage feedback to our advantage. Feedback exists in multiple dimensions – sight, touch, feel, sound. In this situation, we had to start by learning into one of the most powerful forms of feedback that exists for athletes: Kinesthetic. His body might have been talking to him, but he didn’t know how to listen. Kinesthetic feedback – or, in simpler terms, “feel” – was going to help us solve this problem.
If you talk to a number of high level athletes, you’ll quickly learn how important the concept of feel is. Everyone knows what it feels like when they’re at their best. They know what it feels like when they’re a little off. A big part of this – to me – is because it’s one of the most reliable forms of feedback we posses. Velocity, technology, distance, and the crack of a catcher’s mitt all provide us valuable feedback on a throwing rep – but we don’t always have access to them. We always have access to what we feel.
Every time we pick up a baseball, our brain and body are constantly in calibration. We might not know how hard it was or where exactly it went, but we always know it felt coming out of our hand. If this young man wanted to figure out his hip hinge, we had to start here. It didn’t matter how much feedback he had – or didn’t have – access to. He had a powerful source of feedback at his disposal – but you can’t quite optimize what you haven’t been taught to look for.
I liked the drill he was working on, but I thought a different variation would suit him better. Instead, we tried hopping forward and backwards. Both of these variations worked pretty well. For once, he was able to stick and control his landing. Immediately, he noticed how he was finally able to feel something different. He noticed tension in his lower abdominals and hip flexors – two areas that are critical for creating an active co-contraction around the hip joint. This was exactly what we needed. Now that he had a measuring stick for a good rep, we could begin to associate what separated the good reps from the bad ones.
While this was a good start, we had to supplement what he felt with a new layer of feedback: Visual. I took videos of him going through a few reps – some good, some bad. It’s one thing to feel what your body is doing. It’s another to actually see it. When re-patterning movement, we need to make sure we’re giving the brain a crystal clear blueprint for the new movement we’re trying to create. Visuals are critical for this. If your brain can see what it looks like when it’s on vs. off, it gets a lot easier to re-calibrate rep to rep. You’ve given it a visual map for what you want to create. Your body simply fills in the gaps – assisted by feel.
Through this process, the young man started to figure some things out. It wasn’t perfect, but he was getting better feedback – largely because he knew where to finally look. Later on in the day, he called me over to share a drill variation he had come up with on his own to feel the hip hinge. The drill was done in front of a mirror in the weight room. He could finally feel the tension he had been missing in his delivery. He could see what it looked like in the mirror. After being lost just a few hours earlier, he finally had something he felt better about. While he still has a lot of work to make it stick, it was a cool coaching moment to see a player take a concept and make his own drill out of it. It all started by learning how to optimize his feedback loops – one of my four core coaching principles.
If it’s not transferring, don’t just chalk it up as a problem of novelty. There’s a good chance it’s a feedback problem – especially if you’re not cognizant of the feedback we commonly – and incorrectly – rely on.
If you’re a player and you ask me the question: “How did it look?” I will never tell you how it looks. Instead, I’ll ask you a different question: “How did it feel?”
Of all the questions I receive on the training floor every day, there isn’t a more common exchange than the one above. Everyone wants to know how it looks when they’re learning a new movement pattern. It’s an honest question, but the answer is a short term solution to a long term problem. If you become over-reliant on external feedback, you don’t learn how to leverage what you intuitively posses. You take a short cut and rely on someone else’s opinion – when, in reality, your brain and body are giving you crystal clear feedback on every rep. You just have to learn to listen.
If we go back to the situation above, I couldn’t just tell the player my opinion on how he was moving. Telling him how I thought it looked wasn’t going to solve his problem. He couldn’t feel what he was doing. If he couldn’t feel it, he wouldn’t be able to replicate it in a situation where he didn’t have external guidance. I don’t have the luxury of being in front of a specific athlete all the time. At some point, they’re going to have to take what they’ve learned and make it their own. If I want them to successfully make this transition, I have to take my thoughts, words, and opinions out of the equation. Feedback is all around us. If we want to accelerate the timeline for learning a new skill, we have to teach kids how to look for it.
If you’re a coach, I challenge you: Do not let pitching turn into a beauty pageant.
Avoid giving athletes your opinion on how it “looks.” Challenge them and get them to tap into what they “feel.” When you start here, everything else you say carries more value. You can point out specific differences on video and explain why that would or wouldn’t register a specific sensation. You can point to the radar gun and illustrate why their velocity goes up when they do something different in their delivery.
Disclaimer: We don’t want athletes domed up about every move they make. We do, however, want them to be in tune with their brain and body when learning a specific skill. Self-organization needs guidance from somewhere to organize. Coaches start this process by giving the ship the right map. Athletes leverage the feedback they receive to keep course.
Just make sure they never become too dependent on yours.